Skip the MFA, Part 2: 10 Books That Will Make You A Better Writer

All you need to grow as a writer is a little time, intentional effort, and the right books.

Today we’re going to continue our look into how you can achieve some of the same results of a writing MFA with nothing more than a little intentionality and an Amazon account.

If you haven’t read Part 1 yet and want to get caught up, click here.

One of the best aspects of an academic writing program is that it provides direct access to experts; men and women with a proven track record in honing their craft and publishing consistently. In addition to their own expertise, they also draw from the canon of English literature to present you with texts that highlight various aspects of the craft of writing for you to experience and absorb.

The good news is that while nothing can truly replace live input and interaction, some of the most talented writers and teachers in the world have written down and shared their expertise. The Amazon store is filled with books on all aspects of writing and publishing, and while many of them are of average quality, some of them are fantastically useful.

Before writing this article I looked over my Amazon library and realized that I’ve bought and read well over 100 books on writing and publishing in the past 10 years. Today I’ve picked out the 10 resources that I’ve found most helpful so that I could pass them on to you. I’m completely confident that taking the time to read and absorb these books will make you a better writer.

First, however, let me give you some advice. If you really want to grow as a writer through this process, don’t wait until you feel you have the time, energy, and inclination to get started. One of the hidden benefits of a writing program is that it imposes deadlines and schedules that drive you to prioritize the work. In the absence of those external deadlines you’re going to need to create your own.

Once you’ve read the list below, choose the book you want to start with and set a date by which you’re going to finish reading it. Tell your friends and family and have them ask you if you finished reading it. Schedule a coffee date with someone to sit down and talk about it. Do whatever it takes to make it a real deadline.

Keep a notebook or journal and take notes on each book you read. What are the core principles you’re learning? What new questions does the book raise for you? What themes and common principles emerge as you read multiple books? Science has shown that writing as we read enhances retention.

Finally, you’ll notice some repetition between these texts. That’s a good thing. The core principles of good writing and storytelling have remained consistent for thousands of years. When you encounter a concept that someone else already talked about, pay special attention to it and think about what this new explanation of it might reveal. Embrace repetition to absorb important principles.

Ok, on to the books.

  1. Jim Butcher’s Livejournal on Writing:

So this first resource isn’t exactly a book, but Jim Butcher is one of my favorite authors, and in these posts he talks through everything from how to develop conflict in your stories to how to overcome the Great Swampy Middle. Start at the bottom and read to the top.

2. Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel:

This remains the most useful single resource I’ve encountered so far on the techniques of writing. Maass is a big name literary agent, and he draws on that experience to cover every aspect of compelling fiction. If you only read one book from this list, make it this one.

3. Shawn Coyne, the Story Grid:

Shawn Coyne is my hero. He’s an editor with 25+ years experience, and this book details his system for breaking down, understanding, and improving a book. Extremely helpful for people who need some structure in their process.

4. Stephen Pressfield, The War of Art:

This book, and its follow up Do The Work, are required reading in my opinion for anyone getting started in a creative pursuit. Provides helpful language for understanding the Resistance that will try to stop you, and what to do about it.

5. Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down The Bones:

A wonderful read for anyone trying to bring more emotion, intuition, and creativity to their writing. It sits on the other end of the spectrum from some of the more technical resources I’ve already listed, and really helped me to expand my voice and just enjoy writing more.

6. Jason Scott Bell, Plot and Structure:

This is easily the best, most coherent book I’ve ever read on the topic of story structure and narrative milestones. Bell lays it out clear and simple, defining the critical aspects of effective narrative while still leaving plenty of room for every story to be unique.

7. Jason Scott Bell, Elements of Fiction Writing — Conflict and Suspense:

Ok, you caught me, this one is by James Scott Bell too. What can I say? The man knows his stuff. Compelling conflict is an element of storytelling that is sometimes difficult to grasp, which is a real shame considering it might just be the most important of them all. Understanding how to develop micro and macro conflict is an essential component of writing good fiction.

8. Sean Platt and Johnny Truant, Write, Publish, Repeat:

This book is a fun, no-nonsense rundown of what it takes to become a successful indie author and publisher these days. Sean and Johnny dispel some myths, lay out their own process, and walk you through the concepts and practice of self-publishing with humor and clarity.

9. K.M. Weiland, Structuring Your Novel — Essential Keys For Writing An Outstanding Story:

A really helpful overview of how to approach the overall flow of a story from start to finish. Weiland offers a slightly different approach to narrative structure and organization that I found extremely helpful.

10. Barbara Beig, Spellbinding Sentences:

To a word nerd like me this book was pure catnip. Beig celebrates the glories of the English language while also giving you practical advice and guidance on how to build up your ‘word hoard’ and master the flow of your sentences.

So there you have it, 10 books to make you a better writer. Next time we’ll dive into an overview of English Literature in 2000 words or less.

Thanks for reading to the end! If this article was helpful to you please recommend it, and follow me here on Medium if you’d like to read more along these lines.